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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
Catherine Reef

Jane Austen’s popularity never seems to fade. She has hordes of devoted fans, and there have been numerous adaptations of her life and work. But who was Jane Austen? The writer herself has long remained a mystery. And despite the resonance her work continues to have for teens, there has never been a young adult trade biography on Austen.

Catherine Reef changes that with this highly readable account. She takes an intimate peek at Austen’s life and innermost feelings, interweaving her narrative with well-crafted digests of each of Austen’s published novels. The end result is a book that is almost as much fun to read as Jane’s own work—and truly a life revealed. Includes bibliography and index.

I've never read a biography of Jane.  Shocking, I know, all things considered.  In spite of that, I think I've picked up a number of tidbits along the way, and from those and her work, I've always felt like I know Jane quite well.  (Well, as well as anyone can, considering that she can be pretty elusive...)  Jane Austen: A Life Revealed packs a huge wealth of information in to a fairly trim book, and I certainly learned some new things that I was shocked I didn't know.  There was one moment of panic in particular where Jane's school years are touched on, and Reef mentions (quite casually) that Jane very nearly died of a "putrid fever" - possibly typhoid or diphtheria) as a result of neglect by the boarding school mistress.  I'm not kidding you when I say I actually felt a moment of OMGWhatifJaneAustenhaddiedbeforeshewrote panic.  For realsies.

You can tell that a lot of painstaking research spent gathering every little tidbit went into this book.  It is full to bursting with the big occurrences and the minutiae of not only Jane's life, but her family as well.  I respect the amount of research and passion that went into it, and the work Reef did to tie the novels to concrete events in Austen's life.  The reader gets a clear picture of the things that may have inspired Austen to write certain scenes or characters, and the where the stories are in the chain of events.  I liked this.  But at times, there seemed to be just information overload, or facts would seem to come out of nowhere.

I'm not sure how to explain it, but it was good from the historicists point of view, but maybe less so from the storytellers pov.  Things didn't always segue, and chunks of information sometimes seemed out of place in the scheme of things.  Things would be going along smoothly and flowing, and then it would feel as if someone who was giving a presentation had accidentally shuffled their index cards.  The powerpoint slides were out of order...  I just found myself wishing that a little more attention had been paid to transitioning smoothly.

Also, there was a tendency to over-summarize Austen's work.  A student could almost use the book as Cliffs Notes at times, there was so much uninterrupted summary.  Though I liked the idea of placing the stories in context, and I loved getting the tidbits about what Austen's family and contemporaries thought of her work, I felt it would have been better broken up, or even to have only the relevant pieces of the text used to show a link to Austen's life.  A paragraph or two of summary would often have sufficed just as well as the 3+ pages that were often given.  It broke  the flow of the biography for me.

In the end, though, this is a fairly engaging and certainly readable account of Austen's life and the devotion she has inspired.  I don't know how well it will capture its intended teen audience - though then again, I'm not entirely sure how well biographies in general would capture the audience - but I would certainly recommend it to those who either are Austenites (fledgling or full-fledged) and those who find themselves required to do a presentation on an author for their English class...  ;P

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